There is not much new information one can write about Theobaldo Cappellano, a sometimes divisive winemaker with whom I was once fortunate to spend the better part of the afternoon discussing winemaking, viticulture, land use, morality and invention. To say that my visit was unusual is perhaps an understatement, though I’m guessing it was only unusual for me in the context of my visits with winemakers, as I can’t see that there was anything unusual about it for Theobaldo. I think one learned fairly quickly that Theobaldo, or Baldo as he was known, was not one for facades as his direct and precise answers made clear.

Why did you plant nebbiolo on its own root stock? ‘Because I wanted to and I could’.

Why have you asked journalists to not assign point scores to your wine? ‘ You can’t reduce the experience of a bottle of wine to a number’.

Why are you rebuilding your old lawn mower to cut on the slope instead of buying something purpose made? ‘I’m taking advantage of grey energy. Yes this machine may not be as efficient as something new but by reusing it I’m saving what is there and preventing the use of resources to try and replicate something that works’.

I’m paraphrasing as best as my memory allows me here, but I bet I’ve gotten quite close to what Theobaldo said back in the day, which is surprising. I usually have difficulty remembering what someone told me yesterday, but the earnest approach and blunt answers left a bit of a mark on me. Baldo’s unexpected passing in 2009 cemented those recollections. I had hoped to spend more time with this anomaly of a man, someone who seemed at once lifted out of the past and yet visionary in his modernity.

Since his passing, Baldo’s son Augusto has taken over the helm at Cappellano, and while it is probably too early to tell for sure whether or not there have been a few bumps during the transition, the wines tasted this past May at the estate were exceptional examples from the difficult 2007 vintage.Cappellano, possibly better known for their Barolo Chinato over the years, had flown under the radar in the US market for decades, really only capturing the attention of the market when he chose to bottle his ungrafted nebbiolo vines as a separate bottling known as the Pie Franco. The goal in planting some vines on their own rootstock was to see what happened. It was a very simple, visceral motivation, with the ultimate prize being a better wine.

Baldo readily admitted that the experiment was not without it’s issues. Vines died and suffered, but in the end the fruit that these vines managed to produce, in turn managed to produce something uniquely different than the fruit from American rootstock vines that lay just feet away on the hillside vineyard known as Gabutti. In truth, we tasted very little of these wines that day, in fact only two of the Pie Franco wines found their way into this tasting but this brings up the point of trying to make a better wine for a reason.

The line-up we did enjoy was in fact extensive, reaching back to 1935, quite an achievement in its own right. What was even more surprising an achievement was the condition of the oldest bottles, rich and still tannic in the case of the 1935, perhaps a bit too rich and a bit too fresh. It’s a challenge to assess old wines, old Barolo in particular. Barolo was not really a collector’s wine until fairly recently, so these ancient bottles tend to have suffered to some extent or another over the years from mistreatment, making the condition of this particular bottle even more surprising.

Somehow this bottle lasted through the years of war, poverty and neglect to emerge from the bottle on this evening late in 2012 in remarkable condition, unless of course it didn’t. There is always a chance that this was an outright fake. Recent developments have certainly proven that being fooled by fake wines is neither infrequent nor uncommon, even for experts. I would have to say that this 1935 Barolo had something about it that lead me to believe that it was not exactly what it appeared to be, though I have my doubts that it was an outright fake.

Rather, I expect this was only partially what it did not appear to be, and it did not appear to be 1935 Barolo. There are two easy answers here, either the wine was reconditioned along the way, certainly possible but not the likeliest answer in my opinion. Rather, I believe that this wine might have been “improved” before its original sale. Now before anyone gets up in arms, I am not implying anything nefarious here. What I do believe happened was that the producer, at that point in time Giuseppe Cappellano, might have felt that he would be offering his customers a better wine if it were made richer and brawnier with the addition of some richer and brawnier wine.

You might ask why I would suggest such a thing, and it would be a fair question. The simple truth is that later in the tasting I encountered a similar set of wines. The 1974 and 1978 Cappellano Barolos also came across as unusually rich, and deep with youthful color for traditionally made Barolos in their mid-thirties, and the 1979 impressively outperformed the vintage as well.  What could have caused such a thing to happen? Knowing what little I know about Baldo, his free spirit and drive to produce something better, and not necessarily in line with the accepted wisdom of the day. Perhaps he looked to the past, perhaps aware what his father’s uncle Giuseppe had done, and made his wine better.

This of course is all conjecture based on bottles of wine stored who knows where tasted years after they were bottled, but what I can say in all honesty is that these wines simply did not seem to be what they purported to be. One can’t blame Baldo, who upon taking control of the winery in 1970 after years of neglect was thrust into an unfamiliar role. While Baldo will always be remembered as one of the great stalwarts of the traditionalist Barolo producers, he will also have to be remembered as a risk taker and a pioneer. It’s not a giant leap to take; imagining him playing with wines trying to make something better than what had come before.

One possible clue to what may have happened here lies in Baldo’s formative years as a winemaker in Eritrea. Perhaps it is surprising to learn that not only was Theobaldo born in Eritrea, but he lived much of his life there, and even learned how to make wine there, from rehydrated raisins. Could some raisin wine have been produced and added to these vintages of Cappellano Barolo? It seems a likely, and rather benign explanation to me.

Whatever the case, something went on at Cappellano that allows one to break down the wines into at least five distinct periods, reflected to a certain degree in the labels used during those periods. While I can’t say what periods these vintages span, I can say that certain groups of wines fall into these distinct periods.

From this tasting I can conclude the following:

1935 and 1947 seem to be from a time when the wine was not classically Barolo
1958 through 1970 seem to be classic Barolo
1974 through 1980 seem to be off by varying degrees
1982 through 1990 show a return to classic style, though with a rusticity expected of the period
1995 and onward, the wines seem to move from strength to strength reflecting Cappellano’s maturation both in the vineyard and in the cellar.

I of course could be wrong here, but I would be surprised. I’ve included a set of photographs of the earlier wines just to illustrate how deep and richly colored some of these ancient wines were, in contrast to the wines of the second period that separates them. Once again, I want to stress that I believe these wines were ‘improved,’ not that there was an effort to cheat or deceive anyone here. Today this may not fly, even in Brunello, but in Italy, in the near and distant past, this was not an unusual occurrence.

Today’s Cappellano wines are undoubtedly made by the book, and they can be something quite special. I’ve put many down in my cellar and expect the 1999s and 2004s in particular to be spectacular, with the 2007s on my very short list of Barolos worth buying from that vintage. Be that as it may, there remains what will very likely prove to be an unsolvable mystery here.  This is part of the joy of cellaring, collecting and drinking wine. Experiencing the change through the decades, safely removed from the difficulties of the day allows one such as myself to do this bit of armchair sleuthing.

I believe my notes speak for themselves here. In general I felt that the wines showed quite well, too well in some cases, but in general I was happy with many of the wines and would love to try them again to see if my experiences are replicable.  

Before I get to the notes from the vertical tasting allow me to share my notes on the 2007 Cappellano Barolos. As is always the case, I’ve refrained from assigning point scores to the Cappellano wines. Theobaldo Cappellano asked journalists not to do so.

2007 Otin Fiorin Pie Rupestris

Pretty and very precise with violet and soil top notes over fruit that has a sweet, ripe nature to it. Fine firm tannins on entry are buried in rich Blackberry fruit accented with notes of wild herbs. Typical of the vintage, this is perhaps a little long on the fruit though there is lots of structure and the extract of fruit is balanced by bright acids. A decidedly powerful wine with good length, woodsy spice and a hint of menthol. Excellent wine.

2007 Otin Fiorin Pie Franco

Tight, floral and delicate on the nose with a little seared beef and cooked meaty aromas that turn a bit medicinal. This also has a bit of a sweetness on entry, though it shows a very swirly delicacy with rare textural complexity. Perhaps a touch hot, but with more depth and less weight than the Rupestris and decidedly more elegant. This really shows great depth of fruit, though the fruit lacks a touch of freshness and the tannins show just a hint of unripeness on the palate. Texturally this has explosive energy and fine length, it just is missing a bit of freshness. Very good wine, though time in the cellar might prove particularly beneficial.

1935 Cappellano Barolo

Spicy on the nose with lots of anise seed, poppy seed, some white truffle, licorice, rose petal, hint of broth and tar. This is really classic and perfectly mature but awfully young looking for a wine of this age. With a hint of game and some herbs on the palate accenting a core of lingonberry jam, this is rich and still lightly tannic in the mouth with deep, intense, herb-tinged cherry fruit on the back end leading to a big finish. Transparent on the palate though with a bit of heat, this shows good length, lovely richness of flavor and medicinal terroir. Really very fine.

1947 Cappellano Barolo

A bit dirty on the nose with lots of horseradish and earthy root notes as well as a little rubbery. This is intensely aromatic with strong aromas of diesel smoke and Chinato herbs. Silky with a superb texture, but the earthy fruit is faded. There is an echo of fruit on the palate that extends through the finish. A nice wine that is a treat to drink but not great. This is tough and lengthy on the finish, with a sweetness to it and a hint of chocolate. A fun wine to try but I wasn’t looking forward to drinking more.

1958 Cappellano Barbaresco

Intensely perfumed with aromas of rose petals, sweet herbs, a little sour cherry, bit of camphor, high-toned,  jammy and spicy in a lean red-fruited way, though with air this turns very caraway scented with hints of little forest floor and sweet veal stock. Sweet on entry though a bit vague on the mid-palate, with lovely brown spices, a bright rose petal element along with candied red cherry fruit. This is rather elegant upfront, then fraying on the back end and turning very fragile on the finish.

1958 Cappellano Barolo

A touch funky on the nose with a bit of body odor, stink wrapped up in an earthy, dried herbal, chalky earth toned nose. The aromas are rich and powerful, supported by a fair amount of VA, but not entirely agreeable. Dry tannins are balanced by a bit of oxidized sweetness up front. In fact, this has powerful drying tannins that are very finely textured. On entry here is a little sweet bay leaf on the palate with a nice sweet, dark berry fruit on the back end, then a very fine elegant finish, medicinal and spicy. This really makes up for the defects of the nose on the palate, which is powerful and earthy with lovely freshness and detail. This becomes better with air, an excellent wine.

1964 Cappellano Barolo

Grapefruit astringency greets the nose followed by wet leather, sweet and a bit nutty and green walnut syrup aromas. The nose is a bit high-toned, with a little hint of coal, sweet waxy red fruit, and smoky pomegranate notes. Very transparent in the mouth with soft tannins lending this a fairly silky feel. This shows lovely bright fruit, perhaps a little astringent, but long with sour cherry fruit on the finish. This is delicate but with wonderful balance, a lovely zesty finish in a feminine and elegant style. Bright, precise and so well-balanced. A real pleasure to drink.

1967 Cappellano Reserva Speciale

A little funky on the nose at first, in fact this smells a bit like mutton. There is decent complexity here with hot stones on the nose, light tar and strawberry fruit that’s a bit smoky and recalls burning strawberry jam with a caramel top note.  Complete, the first wine with fruit that is complete and still towards the front of the palate. This is rich and lovely with a smooth texture and gently spicy accents to the black cherry and wild strawberry/rhubarb fruit with lovely fennel spice on the back end. The tannins here are really resolved, allowing the fruit to shine. Really quite excellent.

1970 Cappellano Barolo

A bit of tree bark on the nose before this turns moderately sweet, with earthy overtones and some dried rose petals.  Nicely spiced with a sweet beefiness, flecked with hints of limestone, celery seed, smoke and oxidized sweet. Rich, still nicely fruity and well-endowed, though the flavors here are very developed and in the brown end of the spectrum with a leathery, dried fruit character. This turns a bit lean on the finish with modest length and tannins that are a bit drying. Nice enough but may have seen some poor storage along the way.

1974 Cappellano Barolo

Mushroom and pencil lead on the nose with a fair amount of insect spray; this smells wrong. Soft tannins and bright acids give this a good juicy feel, and the chunky plummy fruit is smooth, and attractive but at the same time simple and short, finishing with bright acidity but a bit chunky and clumsy. Not what I expected.

1978 Cappellano Barolo

Insecticide on the nose along with caraway seeds and a little black pepper in a muddy presentation. Earthy and a bit fudgy on the palate. This is fairly tannic, bright, dusty, chunky and a bit tough, in a very extracted style. Even the finish is tough and extracted with evolved earthy flavors. With air the tannins soften a bit, but this remains angular gaining minty and spicy notes on the finish. A tough wine to like.

1979 Cappellano Barolo

A bit tight on the nose with sweet fruit, a hint of Tootsie Roll, an edge of arugula and mint, along with oyster shell and tar base notes. Silky and bright on the palate with wonderfully ripe tannins and tarry, spicy flavors. This lacks some fruit but texturally is very attractive with an earthy, mineral note that leads to a long, huge finish full of bing cherry fruit. This is a bit lean but ripe and focused, if only the fruit could move a bit back onto the palate it would be great.

1980 Cappellano Barolo

Choco necco wafer greets the nose along with dusty, mineral, earthy aromas. There is a lovely herbal base here that recalls fennel but the fruit is definitely roasted and stewy. Bright and juicy on entry with an array of earthy, tarry and licorice scents in the mouth. A lovely porcini note on the palate, yet lots of tannins on the finish, albeit ripe, this seems to be something you should be drinking sooner rather than later. This lacks the detail of the 1979 but attractive with spicy and mineral accents on the finish

1982 Cappellano Barolo

Caraway, mineral, amarena cherry, hint of cinnamon, some incipient bay leaf, and a hint of sweetness on the nose is joined by a gentle tarry note, fennel, with very fine rose petals and some cranberry fruit with a little mint and a hint of porcini. This is firing on all cylinders. Very supple and attractive with sweet fruit on the palate, this is ready with lovely wild cherry and strawberry fruit and a hint of prune lurking in the background. A bit small scaled but this has fresh Nebbiolo tannins, bright acids, great medicinal accents to the fruit with good length and a lovely spicy cherry pit note on the finish. There is a lovely crispness to the tannins of this very pretty wine.

1989 Cappellano Barolo

Minerally and black-fruited on the nose with aromas of black plum, bit of prune, cherry in alcohol and tarry, spicy and gently smoky top notes. This is young and vibrant, tarry and closing with air. This is sexy, suave, powerful and rich with ripe fruit in a fairly plump style. There are plenty of spicy and earthy accents lending an almost black peppery quality to the chewy fruit. With air the tannins come to dominate the palate a bit, but this has great depth of fruit so I expect it will age quite well. Still a bit of a rustic wine but it shows the brilliance of the vintage.

1990 Cappellano Barolo

Liquory and quite mineral on the nose with rich, dense aromas of ripe cherry and plummy fruit. This actually smells tannic and tarry. Powerful on the palate, liquory and medicinal, this is incredibly concentrated with dense, aggressively medicinal fruit. This is majestic but not fruity per se, never will be elegant but powerfully complex and tannic with rich, slightly roasted black cherry fruit that should drink well for a decade or two.

1995 Otin Fiorin Pie Rupestris

Sweet black cherry fruit on the nose is framed with lovely medicinal accents. There’s nice depth to the aromatics here as this shows a lovely perfumed nose with sweet and nutty top notes built on a base note of macerated flowers, green herb notes and salumi oak. Silky on entry with a juicy feel and early hints of plum and big black cherry skin over a light base of medicinal spice. The tannins are nicely ripe and polished, with bright acidity. This is a bit dusty but with good length. This is still a bit closed and will need another 3-5 years to really show what it’s got but it promises to be quite good.

1995 Otin Fiorin Pie Franco

Very finely focused on the nose with earth, strongly medicinal with some hickory oak-like aromas. This is a little minty and quite aromatic with hints of tree bark and a bit of forest floor, adding detail to red fruits that are sweet and waxy. With rich sweet fruit right up front, this is almost explosive on entry with fine tender tannins and bright acidity. On the back end this turns more savory and complex with layers of flavor and an innate brightness. There’s a hint of coffee cream on the transition to the long, elegant finish that adds yet another facet to this. Faceted, that’s what this is and something special that should be ready earlier than the Rupestris of the same vintage.

1996 Otin Fiorin Pie Franco

Tight, liquory and smoky on the nose that fills with dried cherry fruit. This is very finely aromatic with huge tea aromas and perhaps even a hint of nutty oak, along with minty spices and freshly ground coffee adding complexity. Tight and coiled in the mouth and in need of a decade to unwind. Superbly ripe tannins support a tense palate full of mineral accents and black cherry fruit. The tannins pop on the finish, chewy, dark and a little fudgey. Today this is a bit short on the finish, muscular and yet not large-scaled, very focused and tense. This is so well-balanced it’s hard to see how massive this wine might become. This should be fantastic.